We mark this year’s International Day of Non-Violence in a world dramatically altered since our last commemoration. The powerful engine behind that wave of change – beginning in Tunisia and then spreading across North Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere – was none other than a non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights.
The individuals – many of them youth – at the helm and heart of these movements toppled long-entrenched governments, delivered a rebuke to those who embrace violence, and emboldened other oppressed peoples to think that the path of non-violence might work for them, too.
There is a heavy risk for those who stare down the barrel of a gun armed only with the knowledge that they have right on their side. But courageous individuals who believe in and use non-violence leave oppressors facing what is for them an unpalatable option – crack down harder or negotiate. The former simply reveals the bankruptcy of the systems they are defending; the latter could well set change in motion. This is why non-violence so often confounds those who face it; this is why non-violence is so powerful.
The United Nations Charter clearly champions a peaceful, non-violent approach as the first recourse – utilizing means such as negotiation, mediation, arbitration and judicial settlement.
When the Security Council has sanctioned the use of coercive measures, as was done earlier this year in Libya and Côte d’Ivoire, it was to protect civilians – and then only as a last resort, in the face of violence.
Our non-violent work to build peaceful, stable societies takes many forms – from promoting values and norms to establishing institutions. The rule of law, sustainable development, building and making peace – these are the elements of the UN agenda for non-violent change. We are striving to intervene early, before tensions escalate, and speedily when they do. We are strengthening our strategic partnerships so we can respond more quickly to crises while supporting national institutions for mediation and dialogue.
This International Day coincides with the anniversary of the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, leader of India’s historic and non-violent movement for independence. His transformative and transcendent approach had deep roots in India’s past. Some two thousand years earlier, Emperor Ashoka renounced recourse to war and devoted himself to the peaceful development of his society. His idea of peace and non-violence extended to the protection of animals and trees – sustainability before its time.
Others around the world have carried this banner, from Chico Mendes in Brazil to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the United States, from Nelson Mandela in South Africa to Professor Wangari Maathai in Kenya. All of these leaders inspired global movements in which they were joined by countless others who embraced non-violence as a core value and animating principle.
The timeless power of non-violence, which has accomplished so much in the past year alone, has a vital role to play in all countries, including established democracies. On this International Day, let us re-commit to supporting non-violence. Non-violence is not only an effective tactic; it is a strategy and the ultimate vision. Durable ends such as peace can only come through durable means – non-violence.